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Yr Hen Iaith part forty three: Politics, Language and Religion – The 1567 New Testament

23 Jun 2024 7 minute read
Statue of William Salesbury, Translators’ Memorial, St Asaph Llywelyn2000 CC-BY-SA-4.0

We continue the history of Welsh literature to accompany the second series of podcasts in which Jerry Hunter guides fellow academic Richard Wyn Jones through the centuries. This is episode 43.

Jerry Hunter

Pererindotwch yn droednoeth at ras y Brenin a’i Gyngor i ddeisyf cael cennad i gael yr Yscrythur Lân yn eich iaith[.]

‘Go on a pilgrimage barefoot to his grace the King and his Council to petition for consent to have the Holy Scripture in your language.’

The Protestant humanist William Salesbury addressed this passionate plea to his readers in his introduction to Oll Synnwyr Pen Cymro, published in 1547.[1]

It would be a full twenty years before the first Welsh translation of the New Testament appeared in print, a project in which Salesbury played a central role.

Progress on this was delayed by the reign of Mary I (1553-1588), as Protestants had to either lay low or go into exile abroad during the Catholic queen’s reign.

The publication of the Bible in Welsh would prove to be of the utmost importance for the future of the language and its literature (a subject to which we will return soon), and it is essential to know something about the immediate religious and political context(s) in order to understand why and how this transpired.

After Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, Protestant exiles began returning to England and Wales, many of them energetic learned men eager to transform the religious landscape at home.

An Act of Uniformity was passed in 1559, establishing the Book of Common Prayer in order to ensure that all churches in the realm conformed liturgically.

During what we now call the Convocation of 1563, twenty Protestant bishops, many of them recently returned from exile, gathered to help solidify and formalize the nature of the Elizabethan church.


Richard Davies, Bishop of St. Davids, was one of the twenty taking part in this convocation. Originally from Gyffin near Conwy, Davies most likely embraced Protestantism while studying at Oxford in the 1530s.

Having followed a career in the church prior to Mary’s reign, and living in exile in Frankfurt for most of it, he became an important figure in the Elizabethan church following his return in 1558, leading a royal commission which inspected all of the Welsh dioceses as well as Hereford and Worcester.

While we don’t know what kinds of behind-the-scenes conversations took place, it’s easy to imagine that Richard Davies took advantage of his position and his connection to Elizabeth’s government to lobby for the production of a Welsh Bible.

Hereford Welsh

An Act passed in 1563 in the name of Elizabeth I ordered the Bishops of Wales and Hereford to ensure that the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were made available in Welsh in the churches of their dioceses.

There are two interesting facts here that deserve attention. First of all, the wording of the Act contains a reminder that Welsh was once spoken well beyond the current borders of Wales; there was a largest enough monoglot Welsh-speaking population in Hereford to necessitate the inclusion of that English diocese.

And, while the 1563 Act is sometimes wrongly referred to as legislation ‘permitting’ the publication of the Bible in Welsh, it was very different in nature in reality: Queen Elizabeth I was commanding the Bishops to produce a Welsh Bible and ensure its presence in their churches.

Although this command was obviously welcomed by the Protestant bishops, the detail is significant.


Popular discussions of Welsh Tudor history sometimes cast the Welsh Bible published during Elizabeth’s reign as a kind of compensation for the wrong done to the language by her father, Henry VIII, with the Acts of Union.

A diametrically opposite view would in fact be much more accurate: the Acts of Union and the 1563 Act can both be seen as manifestations of a Tudor impulse to create uniformity in the realm, the former erasing legal and administrative differences between England and Wales and the later ensuring religious conformity.

If we consider the 1563 command that the Bible and Book of Common Prayer be produced in Welsh in connection with the 1559 Act of Uniformity,

it is extremely interesting to note that Elizabeth I’s government sought political and religious uniformity, not linguistic uniformity.

Indeed, acknowledging linguistic diversity by ensuring these key Welsh publications was a way of achieving religious uniformity.


Whatever his role encouraging the passing of this act, Richard Davies played a key role in the translation process itself.

For centuries, plastai (manor houses) of the uchelwyr (gentry) had been sites of patronage for Welsh bards. Davies turned the Bishop’s Palace at Abergwili into a Protestant humanist house of patronage, and a number of energetic scholars gathered there to translate Scripture, including William Salesbury.

Indeed, he was responsible for most of the Testament Newydd published in 1567, although significant parts were translated by Richard Davies and by Thomas Huet, a Cambridge-educated clergyman who held several offices in the Bishopric of St. Davids.

Following the humanist ad fontes dictate that original sources be used, they translated the New Testament from the original Greek into Welsh.

While an astounding scholarly achievement, the Welsh orthography (spelling conventions) used by Salesbury were overly influenced by Latin – a fault we might describe as a misdirected overemphasis on learning.

Daunting task

By the way, and in relation to this suggestion that Salesbury’s emphasis on learning sometimes turned a virtue into a fault, there is a humorous story which circulated in later years explaining why this Protestant humanist team never produced a Welsh translation of the Old Testament.

According to this bit of folklore, they did embark on that daunting task, but William Salesbury and Richard Davies did not agree about the meaning of one Hebrew word.

The disagreement turned into a heated argument, the two men fell out, and the work was put aside.

While surely not true, this story does suggest how these two learned men were viewed by some members of later generations.

Introductions to the 1567 Testament Newydd were written by both Richard Davies and William Salesbury.

While William Salesbury was never short of words – as evidenced by his introduction to Oll Synnwyr Pen – his introduction to the Testament Newydd is very short and comparatively simple.

Deferring to the status of the bishop, he tells readers specifically that it ‘is not fit’ (nid gwiw) for him to repeat things which his colleague treats in his introduction.

Salesbury nonetheless provides a concise version of what the bishop does in detail in his long introduction, claiming counter to reason that Protestantism was ffydd eu hen deidiau y Britaniaid gynt, ‘the religion of their ancestors, the old Britons’.

We’ll explore this theme at length next time when we focus on Richard Davies’ long and complex introduction, an extremely interesting literary articulation of Welsh identity which provides a striking example of what Saunders Lewis called propaganda’r Eglwys Brotestannaidd, ‘the propaganda of the Protestant Church’.

Darllen Pellach / Further Reading:

Prys Morgan, A Bible for Wales (1988).

Glanmor Williams, ‘Richard Davies, Bishop of St. Davids, 1561-81’, Trafodion Anrhydeddus Gymdeithas y Cymmrodorion, 1948, 147-169.

[1] See episode 41 in this series for a more detailed discussion of this introduction.

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